The one-off games to start the playoffs used to be called Knockout Round games. Now everything's a Knockout Round game – it's single elimination, which means it's win or go home over the course of any given 90 (or 120) minutes from here on out.
For context: The road team won eight of 26 Knockout Round games over the years, and two of eight MLS Cups. While the majority of those road wins were strict bunker-and-pray – always a possibility in any tournament – last year's Knockout Round upsets were characterized by lower-ranked teams going out there and playing open, loose, attacking soccer. It wasn't always pretty, but it was effective.
New York City FC
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Because, as it turned out, all Dome Torrent really needed was a lot of time and a little bit of desperation to get things headed in the right direction. NYCFC picked up in 2019 where they left off in 2018: playing stultifying, mechanical soccer, and at one point they'd won just four out of their previous 22 matches and Dome was openly talking about how his job was on the line.
They've gone 18-5-5 since then and are clearly the second-best team in MLS, if not the best outright given LAFC's injuries/absences. They have one of the best home records in the league and are one of just two teams in the league with a winning road record. They have multiple Best XI-caliber players, one of the best defenses in the league and the second-best goal differential.
They're here because they're really, really good.
FORMATION/TACTICS: Torrent's been able to pretty seamlessly switch between a 4-3-3 and a 3-4-2-1 throughout the final two-thirds of the season, which Bobby broke down for us last month. The tl;dr takeaway (which is bad – you should read that column) is that if they can separate you defensive and midfield lines, you are toast. As so:
Here, I'll let Bobby take the next line:
And if you over-compensate to compress the middle of the field, they switch to a 3-4-2-1 and release their wingbacks to attack the space down the flanks. Instead of piercing through the middle, they get the ball wide and crash the box.
To beat them you just have to blow them up and make them worry about what you're doing. You've got to out-play them.
EDIT: I'm just going to mention Alex Ring, the league's second-best d-mid, here, because I couldn't work him into the discussion lower in this segment. Ring is really good.
ACHILLES' HEEL: No matter what their formation is they play high upfield and they pull their fullbacks/wingbacks in tight. They actively choose to give you a ton of crosses, but here's the thing: if you get it wide early and get the edge, you can bend crosses across the 18 with the entire NYCFC backline sprinting at their own goal.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Maxi Moralez (AM): He's just the third player in league history to register 20+ assists in a single season, and should be no lower than fourth on the MVP ballot. Moralez has been the league's best string-puller this season, and his off-the-ball movement is a weekly masterclass. Just don't let him take any PKs.
- Anton Tinnerholm (RB): Tinnerholm should be another Best XI player this season, and is one of the few fullbacks in the league who plays endline-to-endline without taking anything of the table in terms of his defensive contribution. He's entirely reliable and frequently a match-winner.
- Heber (F): NYCFC have since evolved into something better, but for a while there Heber was a job-saving arrival. The Brazilian is maybe the most mobile center forward in the league, playing his defense-disorganizing role to perfection and still producing at a Best XI-rate. He's been fantastic.
PRESSURE'S ON: The whole club. As good as this regular season was, they didn't win the Supporters' Shield, and they didn't win the U.S. Open Cup, and now into Year 5 they have no trophies to show for what's amounted to four straight years of very, very good soccer. Maxi's not getting any younger and if they don't win anything at all yet again...
Are they Man City? Or are they Spurs?
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Because Josef wouldn't let them be anywhere else. When Atlanta's season was in danger of imploding in the middle of the summer – they were 5-6-1 over a 12-game stretch from mid-May to late-July, everyone was underperforming and the players were griping about the coach – Josef Martinez simply wouldn't let it all go down the drain.
He led them (maybe even carried them) to six wins and two trophies in seven games over the course of a memorable August. That, combined with a five-game winning streak back in the spring and then a mostly solid 3-1-1 final five games is why the Five Stripes are here.
FORMATION/TACTICS: It's been all over the place in Frank de Boer's first year but in terms of the formation it ended up back where it started: In a 3-4-2-1 with Josef as the No. 9, two attackers underneath him and then two overlap-at-all-costs wingbacks.
This, from that August stretch, was Atlanta at their best:
Yeah, Josef biffed that one but he went on to score two others that game. You could argue that he was more valuable to this team than he was last year, when he rightfully won the MVP.
Anyway, quick combo play through the middle, open it up with a ball to the wings, then an early cross to punish a retreating defense. They'd be happy to do that 40 times a game.
ACHILLES' HEEL: If you push your wingbacks that high you leave yourself exposed to early, direct play into the channels behind them. This is partially mitigated by having three central defenders and two d-mids out there, but they've still looked consistently vulnerable to fast, direct wingers over the final six weeks of the season. Yes, that includes the Decision Day presented by AT&T home win over New England – a 3-1 win for Atlanta that greatly flattered them.
A big part of the problem here is that despite playing with what are essentially four central midfielders, the Five Stripes aren't great at getting pressure to the ball. If you leave one of your wingers high and are able to win the ball in midfield, you can just hit an early ball over the top and it's off to the races.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Miles Robinson (CB): The youngster has won most of those races this year, putting out more open-field fires than any other CB in the league. But he withdrew from USMNT camp last week with a pulled hamstring, and was declared out for the Round One game against the Revs. Without Robinson I'm not exactly sure how Atlanta defend in the open field.
- Darlington Nagbe (MF): Do you remember how good Nagbe was in the Campeones Cup against Club America? That might be the best game any CM in the league has played this year. Flip side of the coin is he still has many, many games where he's just not up for it. Which Nagbe shows up in the playoffs?
- Pity Martinez (MF): This year has not gone according to plan for the reigning South American Player of the Year. Pity was supposed to fill Miguel Almiron's shoes, and while his numbers are pretty good in attack, he's a cipher defensively and his propensity for bad turnovers has often led to De Boer giving him an early hook.
PRESSURE'S ON: I'm vacillating between Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, De Boer and no one. The first two are – or should be – self-explanatory given their relative lack of production and impact given their high price tags. For De Boer it's just a matter of proving that his changes, in terms of style, formation and culture, are worth it. Force me to choose one and it's probably him.
But I'm more inclined toward "no one." Atlanta already have two trophies this year (whatever you happen to think of the Campeones Cup, that game was awesome and Aguilas were out for blood) and that's a pretty fair amount of proof that what De Boer's doing is working.
So I really think that they can flame out (not that I think they will) and while there would be disappointment, there won't be actual "pressure" for the coach. That wouldn't really start until a few games into next season.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: They were able to add some pressing and some 4-4-2 to what had been a pure possession 4-2-3-1 team the past couple of years, and rode their newfound flexibility to a consistently-good-and-sometimes-bordering-on-great-but-then-nah-they're-only-actually-good season.
Philly started and ended the season with back-to-back losses and in between went 16-7-7. They never won more than three in a row and never went more than three games without a win. It was fun and good, and three of the new arrivals (Kacper Przybylko, Kai Wagner and Jamiro Monteiro) were huge parts of it.
FORMATION/TACTICS: As I said above, they're able to toggle between a 4-4-2 (usually a diamond; sometimes flat) and a 4-2-3-1 pretty fluidly depending upon the personnel they have out there. I like the 4-2-3-1 better for what it's worth:
Either way, they have to come out there with fire in their eyes, absolutely determined to win every 50/50 and bully their opponents. When Philly do that they can hang with anyone, as they've proved off and on throughout the season.
ACHILLES' HEEL: They've also proved off and on throughout the season that they don't have enough game-breaking talent to win against the very best teams when they don't/can't do that, which is why they limped to the finish in third place rather than hanging in there in the fight for the top spot in the East until the very end.
I don't think I'm surprising anyone when I say that the Union are a level or three below NYCFC and Atlanta in terms of raw talent, and you could probably throw Toronto and D.C. into the mix as well.
This has to be a "The team is the star" month from Philly.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Jamiro Monteiro (MF): Monteiro is one of the very best newcomers in the league, an all-around ball-winning, pass-spraying central midfielder who excels at disrupting opposing d-mids when they try to build out. He also contributes a ton in attack – though he has to settle his hair-trigger on hopeless 28-yard shots.
- Ilsinho (W): The Brazilian hasn't been quite as electrifying since the end of August, but he's still one of the most dominant and consistently entertaining wide players in the league. The Union are infinitely better going forward when he's on the field (though NYCFC ruthlessly exploited his defensive shortcomings in the season finale).
- Andre Blake (GK): Each of the past few years you could've argued that Blake was the strongest part of Philly, but not in 2019. The Jamaican No. 1 has had a very, very tough season for both club and country, and he's probably more likely to lose them a game than win them one right now. The Union don't have that kind of room for error.
PRESSURE'S ON: Blake and the (still) young defense in front of him, but also (still) on head coach Jim Curtin. His team's played consistently good soccer over the past few years, and the win over Atlanta at the end of August was a signature moment.
But a signature regular season moment isn't exactly the same thing as a signature postseason moment. The Union, maybe more than any other team in the entire playoff field, have to give their fans a taste of playoff success. Otherwise they might stop trusting the process.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: They got Omar, and they are 7-1-6 with a +10 goal differential when he plays. When he doesn't they're 6-9-5, -5.
At midseason the Reds were in big trouble and it looked quite like they were going to miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season, but big signings pay big dividends. Omar's done that, and while they haven't been perfect in the second half of the year, they've been significantly better than most of their competition.
FORMATION/TACTICS: TFC came into the season intending to play a 4-3-3 with two true wingers and now they're mostly there. Except kind of not, because they've actually been stashing playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo on one wing or the other as a way to get him out of central midfield, where his lack of defensive presence was becoming burdensome.
So it's a 4-3-3 that at times plays as a lopsided 4-4-2 diamond, one in which both the fullbacks have to overlap a ton in order to create width.
Regardless of what you want to call it, they're mostly a ball-dominant team who try to play both to and through center forward Jozy Altidore, using his gravity to create lanes for the rest of the attackers.
It's often looked good, but it doesn't work at all if Jozy's not out there (that's foreshadowing).
ACHILLES' HEEL: Jozy's hurt again – he limped off with 20 minutes to go in the season finale. I have no idea if he'll be available for the playoffs, and I don't blame TFC for being coy about his availability.
Just spoke to Greg Vanney for an update on Jozy Altidore. Confirms he is taking good steps, continues to be considered day to day. Hoping he will be available for something but says he is not going to be 100% by Saturday. #TFCLive— Kristian Jack (@KristianJack) October 16, 2019
Their other big issue is that they really do have to throw those fullbacks forward to make things work, and teams are now pretty ruthless about attacking that space:
Omar's been good at most things, but you don't want him trying to stop a DP winger 1-v-1 in the open field.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Michael Bradley (DM): How much does he have left in the tank? Back in 2017 he had the finest year of any d-mid in league history, but he's become a shadow of his former self in terms of his ability to cover ground and win the ball. If teams are able to just dance through the midfield, TFC's in trouble.
- Nicolas Benezet (W): The French winger arrived in August, played pretty well for 400 minutes... and then got hurt. He came back in the season finale for 35 minutes, so chances are he'll be good to go for the playoffs. With or without Altidore, this team will need a huge contribution from the wingers, and Benezet's the guy with the highest profile at that spot (as long as we consider Pozuelo a playmaker).
- Chris Mavinga (CB): Mavinga has moments where he looks like one of the best CBs in the league, but his mental lapses have happened with greater frequency over the course of the past two seasons. It's cost them points on the regular all year long.
PRESSURE'S ON: Pozuelo, Altidore and Bradley. These are three of the most expensive players in the league and at times they absolutely look the part. There are then other times where they... don't. Either they can't stay healthy or they're running out of gas or they just have too many damn miles on their legs.
Whatever the case, they all have a ton to prove this postseason. TFC spent a ton to bring Pozuelo in and spent a ton re-signing Jozy. Bradley, meanwhile, is in limbo – which means he's playing for a contract.
If you're paid like players who can lead the team to a title you have to play like players who are able to lead their team to a title.
WHY THEY'RE HERE: They have the league's second-best defense in terms of goals allowed, which they showed with five straight shutouts to finish the season.
That good finish and a good first two months sort of obscure the fact that D.C. went 3-7-7 from mid-May to the end of August. That's a half-season of just soul-crushingly boring soccer.
But hey... they got in.
FORMATION/TACTICS: They play a 4-2-3-1 with nine field players who are better running, harassing and defending than they are attacking, and then they stick Wayne Rooney up top as a lone center forward.
Here is D.C.'s only open play goal since mid-August:
Yeah, it's a goal kick. I don't know whether to count that as "open play" or "set piece," but there ya go.
ACHILLES' HEEL: United have 11 goals in their past 12 games dating back to mid-August. Two have been off goal kicks (including the one above), one was an own goal, four have been set pieces and four have been actual open-play goals. And of those four open play goals, three of them were rebounds or poaching a poor clearance.
In other words: D.C. United have exactly one open-play assist in the past four months. They finished their season with a scoreless home draw against nine-man FC Cincinnati, who had the worst defense in league history.
I'm going offer up my opinion that the attack is a problem.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Paul Arriola (CM): Even with all of the above I'm actually bullish on D.C.'s chances in the opener because of the role Arriola plays. Ben Olsen can have him just sit on Bradley and try to, at the very least, stymie TFC's build-out. At the very best, that can create dangerous turnovers that the Reds could/should turn into goals. RBNY provided the blueprint for this in the 2017 playoffs.
- Lucas Rodriguez (W): The Argentine U-23 international has had a non-descript season with just 6g/3a, but he's shown a nose for winning second balls around the box and is a relentless defensive presence.
- Steven Birnbaum (CB): I could add his central defensive running-mate Frederic Brillant here as well, as they've been excellent both individually and together. They will spend a lot of time in their own 18 clearing out one attack after another, and when D.C. get set pieces both will push up and be essential attackers.
PRESSURE'S ON: The pressure was on the entire team to build off their remarkable end to 2018 and they collectively blew it. D.C. were the most entertaining team in the league going into last year's playoffs. This year they're the least.
Rooney's on his way out and did you know that Lucho Acosta is still technically on the team? He's started one game in the past two months, and has 1g/0a in the past four.
I honestly don't know who the pressure's on in particular. I just feel like the whole club should be sweating it right now.
New York Red Bulls
WHY THEY'RE HERE: From late April to mid-August they went 11-7-3, pulling themselves out of an early-season nosedive and giving them enough padding to survive a 2-4-1 home stretch.
"Middling" was good enough in the East this season.
FORMATION/TACTICS: It was supposed to be a 4-4-2, I think – it's been repeatedly whispered that that's the formation Red Bull Global would prefer to see their teams play – and for long stretches it's felt like it should be something close to the 3-3-3-1 that they used to good effect in 2017. But it's settled into what's mostly a 4-2-3-1.
They do a lot of playing long and trying to win the second ball:
I – and I think everyone else – am waiting for the switch to flip and for this team to become high-pressing maniacs. I think it's their only way forward.
ACHILLES' HEEL: I'm going to point out that over the past five years they have been almost solely reliant upon Bradley Wright-Phillips to do all the goalscoring in the postseason. And now they don't even really have BWP anymore.
But beyond that: Even with some attacking woes this year, they've still scored a decent amount of goals. RBNY's big problem is that they haven't been able to protect results, far too often turning wins into draws and draws into losses. Maybe it's intensity. Maybe, as with the press, the switch will get flipped.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Brian White (F): On top of everything else that this team had to endure in terms of player turnover and internal motivation this year, they suffered the frustration of finding what looked like a good BWP replacement and then watching him get injured and miss most of the stretch run. White's back now. Can he continue to play the part of a go-to striker?
- Kaku (AM): At the start of the year it looked like he was going to quit, but the Paraguayan playmaker has quietly had an excellent two-way season. It should be his team now, and it kind of has to be if the Red Bulls are going to do anything in the playoffs.
- Aaron Long (CB): As with Kaku – and a few other players – there's been overseas interest in Long. Unlike with Kaku, Long hasn't really risen to the occasion this year, instead regressing from his Defender of the Year form. That guy's still in there somewhere.
PRESSURE'S ON: I think it's pretty squarely on manager Chris Armas, who may very well be coaching for his job. To a lesser extent it's on guys like Long, Kaku, Kemar Lawrence and Michael Murillo, all of whom have attracted interest from overseas and made it clear that said interest is reciprocated.
I don't know if this year is the end of the previous era or the start of a new one, or just a gap year in between two different eras. Bobby and Jimmy Conrad have said that makes the Red Bulls ideal underdogs this postseason – they'll be overlooked – but I can't buy it.
New England Revolution
WHY THEY'RE HERE: Once they dismissed head coach Brad Friedel things immediately came together. It wasn't always scintillating and it was rarely dominant, but the Revs lost just three times after May 8 while winning enough to create breathing room between themselves and the "chasing" (those are air quotes) pack.
FORMATION/TACTICS: Bruce Arena has tinkered quite a bit but in the end it's become a 4-4-2 with Bou playing just underneath Teal Bunbury up top and Carles Gil pinching in from the right wing as a playmaker.
More than anything else, they would love if you let them get out in transition:
There have been a lot of goals like that, and there have been a lot of goals off set pieces, and there have been a lot of poached goals from Bou, who is just a remarkable player. He's the only guy in the league – other than maybe Zlatan – who poaches goals from 30 yards. He just has a knack for understanding when the opposing goalkeeper is a step out of position, or when a gap opens up, or where a second ball is going to drop.
ACHILLES' HEEL: I do not have enough words for the brilliance of Turner, who kept the Revs in games they should've lost within the first five minutes.
That only lasts so long, though. The Revs struggle to track runners out of central midfield and their defense on the front line and the wings isn't always great. It's fairly easy to build out against them, and then to use that positional dominance to create real chances.
They've spent the past five months playing must-win games, and have survived. That's a good thing, but if you spend that much time dancing on the knife's edge, eventually you slip.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
- Andrew Farrell (CB): They tried to convert Farrell to a center back four years ago and it didn't take. This time it has – his distribution from the back has been one of the keys to the Revs getting out in transition. He just has to make sure he doesn't take too many risks on the other side of the ball.
- Wilfried Zahibo (CM): That struggle tracking runners out of midfield? That's Zahibo. He has a real presence when he's locked in on both sides of the ball, but his attention wanders too frequently, which can and does expose his teammates. If he's good, it makes a huge difference.
- Teal Bunbury (F): The Revs are going to counterattack, and that's where Bunbury is at his best. His finishing's been inconsistent this year (really... all years) but when he gets hot he tends to stay hot for a while. Now would be a good time.
PRESSURE'S ON: Nobody really. You could say there's a moderate amount on the players – many of them are playing for jobs – but the whole club's playing with house money at this point. They should enjoy themselves.